Autistic Book Stats
Is autistic science fiction and fantasy dominated by cishet white men - or is something more complicated going on?
A mutual on Twitter recently shared an experience they’d had in real life: in a discussion of neurodiversity in SFF, when asked to think of autistic characters who weren’t cis white men, none of the hosts could think of any.
I found this hilarious, actually. Granted, I don’t tend to keep up with the latest movies, shows, and other media - but when it comes to autistic SFF books, my experience is that it’s the other way around. The autistic SFF books I review are full of queer, female, and trans characters. And while I wasn’t sure if the number of characters of color was up where it should be, I could definitely name several such characters off the top of my head.
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That was my subjective impression, though - and I didn’t have numbers to back it up. We all know the famous fallacy in which, when maybe 1/6 to 1/3 of the time at a meeting is taken up by women, people mistakenly believe women are getting the half of the time that they deserve. So I decided to do some quick calculations to back myself up. Are autistic characters in science fiction and fantasy books overwhelmingly cishet white men, or do they show a different pattern?
I did two analysis. Neither of these aspires to an academic level of rigor - they are designed as back-of-the-envelope calculations to give a general idea what’s going on. People who have the patience to do a more rigorous study in this vein are, of course, welcome to. I ended up making two counts - one of characters from books that have been featured in Autistic Book Party, and one of authors who appear on my Autistic Book List.
Analysis 1: Characters From Autistic Books
For this analysis I wanted to know what kind of autistic characters are being portrayed in SFF books. I went back over every review of a novel or novella that I’ve done for Autistic Book Party. This includes books written by autistic and non-autistic authors. (Short story and poetry collections were excluded from the data, as were books by autistic authors that didn’t feature any autistic characters.)
I dithered over how many characters to include. I considered only one character per book, or only protagonists, but this seemed too restrictive - some books have a diverse cast of autistic characters and the fact that there is more than one such character is part of the point. On the other hand, “every autistic character in the book” wasn’t workable, as some books contain whole communities full of background autistic characters. I ended up deciding on a middle approach: I included every autistic character who was important enough to be mentioned by name in the book review.
I also included the two most important autistic characters from THE OUTSIDE and THE FALLEN (namely, Ev and Yasira) - because, hey, those books exist too.
This resulted in a data set of 69 characters.
For each character, I recorded the following:
Child F: A female child or teenager (under 18).
Child M: A male child or teenager (under 18).
Child NB: A non-binary child or teenager (under 18).
Adult F: An adult woman. For this category, I did not make a distinction between cis and trans female characters.
Adult M: An adult man. For this category, I did not make a distinction between cis and trans male characters.
Adult NB: A non-binary adult.
Child: A pre-pubescent child or young teen who shows no clear signs of being straight or queer. (Note that this category is smaller, numerically, than the sum of the “child” categories for gender: this is because of the number of teenage characters who have a love interest or show signs of being trans.)
Adult - unspecified: An adult whose sexual, romantic, & gender experiences are not relevant to the book and not mentioned. (This category is probably an overcount - I’m sure there are a few characters who were briefly mentioned as having a spouse, or an attraction to someone, etc - or as being asexual - but who I then forgot about after reading. If information didn’t make it into the review itself then I am liable to forget some of it, as some of these reviews are many years old!)
Straight: A character who has a sexual or romantic interest in the opposite sex and who shows no signs of being trans, ace, or bi. (This character may also be an overcount - e.g. if being ace or bi was very briefly mentioned and I forgot about it.)
Ace: A character who is explicitly described as asexual, demisexual, or aromantic.
Gay/Bi: A character who has a sexual or romantic interest in the same sex.
Trans: A character who is described as trans or non-binary. (When a character was both ace and trans, or both gay/bi and trans, the trans category took precedence.)
White: Either a character who is described as white, or whose race is not specified and whom there is no particular reason to think of as non-white. (This category is probably a slight overcount, for the same reasons as “Adult - Unspecified” - I may have seen racial signifiers in some books and simply forgotten them.)
BIPOC: A character who is Black, Indigenous, or otherwise a character of color belonging to a racial or ethnic group that exists in real life.
Fantasy BIPOC: A character who belongs to a fantasy or futuristic culture which does not closely correspond to any past or present real-life culture, but who is clearly not meant to look like a white person.
Non-human: A character who, while clearly autistic, is also an alien or otherwise not human or human-passing.
For both child and adult characters, female autistic characters somewhat outnumber male autistic characters; the effect is even more pronounced for child characters. Almost one in six adult autistic characters are nonbinary, although nonbinary children are rare.
While “straight” is the most common orientation for an autistic character, it is by no means the majority. In fact, if the categories for autistic characters who are canonically queer are put together, then there are almost half again as many of them as straight autistic characters. (Though I was really surprised how few ace-spectrum autistic characters there were; I may have missed something.)
This was the category in which the results were least surprising. Even given that the “white” category might be a slight overcount, about two-thirds of autistic characters in SFF books are white.
The two-thirds number is not far off from the actual demographics of the US (as just over 60% of Americans are white) but it’s worse than it appears for several reasons. One, of course, is that not every author or reader is from the US. The other is that, out of all the non-white autistic characters, less than a third were actually Black, Asian, or otherwise representative of actual autistic BIPOC. The remainder were characters belonging to made-up cultures. Actual autistic BIPOC experiences are still quite underrepresented in SFF, with only a handful of such characters appearing in the data. Furthermore, the handful of actual autistic BIPOC who appear in the data are written by an even smaller handful of authors.
Analysis 2: Autistic Authors
While Analysis 1 is interesting, it has a major flaw, which is that it consists of books that I read and decided to review. There’s an obvious bias there: I’m more likely to read books that are interesting to me. And I’m a big fan of queer SFF as well as SFF by women.
I really didn’t want to expand Analysis 1 to include books I haven’t read. It’s much too difficult to get the full picture of who and what appears in the book just from blurbs and other online information.
Instead, I decided to check Analysis 1 against the broader picture of autistic SFF by running an analysis of autistic authors who appear on my Autistic Book List. While this list is not necessarily exhaustive, it’s a list I’ve maintained for over a decade which is as comprehensive as I’ve been able to make it. Any openly autistic author I’ve ever become aware of, who ever has published a SFF book, is on this list - and this includes picking up names from other lists, from word of mouth, from people who specifically introduced themselves or were recommended to me because of the list, etc. It includes many people whose books I’ve never read and, due to time constraints or differences of taste, probably never will.
There may be hidden biases in this list (due, for example, to questions of which authors have the time and energy to make their existence known, and which authors feel safe self-identifying openly) but, at the very least, these are not biases stemming from my own individual preference.
Because the list includes many people that I know well as well as many people who I’m almost entirely unaware of, I didn’t want any bias due to personal familiarity to enter the data. Thus, I decided to consider the same information - and only information - for every author on the list. Namely, I looked at the information in each author’s official bio and author photo, which was findable for the majority of authors on the list with a quick Google search. Usually this was the bio on the author’s official website, but sometimes the first relevant search result was Amazon, Goodreads, or a Wikipedia article. I did not allow myself to consider other information besides what was apparent from the author bio.
Authors who did not have an easily searchable bio online, or who had produced only short stories/poetry and not books, were excluded from the analysis. As long as each author had produced at least one book, all authors were counted equally (e.g. producing 2 books doesn’t mean the author counts double). I also included myself as one more data point. This resulted, by happy coincidence, in a data set of exactly 100 authors. (After over 100 Google searches for author bios, it also resulted in Google repeatedly asking me if I was sure I was a human.)
From these author bios, I collected the following information:
Since relatively few people bother to say “I am a man,” “I am a woman,” etc, I used the pronouns in the bio as a proxy for author gender.
He/him: The author is described as “he” or “him.”
She/her: The author is described as “she” or “her.”
They/them: The author is described either with they/them or with a neopronoun. (Since this category is a proxy for authors being nonbinary, I counted authors whose pronouns fit into more than one category - e.g. “she/her or they/them” - as “they/them.”)
Unspecified: No gendered pronouns are used in the author’s official bio. While this is occasionally the result of a bio being very carefully written to avoid gendered pronouns, most of the time this category represents authors who happened to write their bio in first person.
Queer In Bio?
It was more difficult to parse out specific queer identities reliably in this data set, so I boiled it down to a yes/no question - does the author’s bio indicate that they are queer?
A “yes” means that there is any clear indication of the author being queer, anywhere in the bio. This might be a literal statement that they identify as queer; it might be the use of nonbinary pronouns; it might be the mention of a same-sex partner or relationship; it might be a slightly indirect but obvious statement, such as “Author So-And-So writes neurodivergent relationships through a queer lens.”
A “no” means that the author’s bio contains no such information.
As a count of how many autistic authors are queer, this should be treated as a drastic undercount. I lost count of the number of authors who I know perfectly well are queer, and who aren’t even closeted or anything, but who simply didn’t happen to put it in their bio. There weren’t many bios that didn’t give at least some suggestion about gender or race, but there are quite a few openly queer authors who simply don’t have it right there in their official bio, for whatever reason. I decided not to try to correct the undercount, but to stick to my methodology so that every author’s information would be treated in the same way. You should view this category as an absolute lower bound on the number of queer autistic authors that there are - not as a realistic estimate of that number.
Apparent Author Race
White: Authors who, as far as I can tell from their bio and author photo, are white or white-passing. (Note that, due to the existence of white-passing BIPOC, this is probably, once again, a slight overcount.)
Non-White: Authors who, as far as I can tell from their bio and author photo, are clearly or probably not white.
Again, like the rest of this analysis, the data should be seen as a quick approximation without an academic level of rigor.
Perhaps surprisingly, the most common pronouns for an autistic SFF author are “she/her.” The number of female authors is more than double the number of male authors. About one in six autistic authors are nonbinary, which is similar to the number of non-binary adult autistic characters in Analysis #1, and is fairly close to the number of autistic authors who are men.
(I did not make any formal distinctions based on birth assignment in this data, but I should note that the “he/him” category includes both cis and trans autistic men; “she/her” includes both cis and trans autistic women; and the “they/them” category includes both AFAB and AMAB authors. However, the majority of authors in the “he/him” and “she/her” categories appear to be cis.)
As mentioned, the number of autistic authors who say in their bios that they are queer is an absolute lower bound on the total number of queer autistic authors, and the true number is significantly higher. Nonetheless, over a third of autistic SFF authors say in their bios that they are queer.
The actual prevalence of queer identity among autistic people is disputed, but it certainly appears to be higher than that of the general population. While it’s hard to make specific comparisons due to the uncertainty in both data sets, it seems quite likely that the prevalence of queer identity among autistic SFF authors is similar to the prevalence of queer identity among autistic people overall, and perhaps even higher.
This is again the least surprising statistic: the majority of autistic SFF authors are white, and it is a larger majority than one would expect if it merely represented US demographics.
BIPOC autistic authors unquestionably need more and better representation. The minority that shows up in this graph is smaller than it should be, but it isn’t vanishingly small - there are quite a few such authors that we can easily seek out if we are looking for them.
Overall, even if the autistic characters we see in SFF television and movies are still overwhelmingly white cishet men, autistic SFF books show a different pattern. By a substantial margin, autistic SFF authors and their characters are predominantly white women, a large number of whom are queer. There is also robust representation of non-binary authors and characters, and while autistic BIPOC representation isn’t where it should be, it isn’t nonexistent either.
However, these statistics (in addition to being a bit quick and casual) also don’t tell the whole story. The Autistic Book List only documents books that exist. It doesn’t separate out which books are tradpub vs small press vs indie, which books are well-known, which books are well-reviewed, which books have substantial marketing budgets and so on. Privileged authors are likely to have more opportunities and be marketed more widely than others, and this will affect which books and authors are visible, even if a diverse range of books and authors technically exist.
Additionally, neither of these analyses cover the range of books with autistic characters written by non-autistic (or closeted) authors. I wasn’t able to analyze this type of character systematically, but it’s very possible that the demographic patterns for these types of characters and authors are distinct from those of openly autistic authors.
Regardless - in books at least, autistic characters who aren’t cishet white men are out there - and not only that, but they are numerous. And if someone’s on a panel about neurodiversity in SFF and doesn’t know this, they probably haven’t looked at the full range of what’s out there for a while.
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Yeah, my reflexive suspicions roughly mirror yours, and while I presume that there's some bias in what I'm reading...it is one of those situations that kind of makes me go "What are you even reading?!" Even counting books that I haven't even read, but have just seen significant press or social media coverage of, like "On the Edge of Gone" and "An Unkindness of Ghosts," I...know for a fact there are non-cis/white/male autistic characters in SFF out there.
And then you also get into the question of how to count autistic-coded characters, which...I am not sure offhand whether autistic coding of cishet white men is more common than that of queer/trans/female/POC characters, but like, how do you even count characters like Elphaba and Rain in the "Out of Oz series," for instance? They most certainly aren't cis white men, and I think most autistic readers would probably identify with them as autistic even if the books never use that word about them, but...the books never use that word about them, and I think it gets very iffy to try to translate their "race" into any contemporaneous Earthly analog.
But yeah, I kind of went "wha??" at that statement, and it MAY just be that I gravitate towards authors writing really uncommon sorts of SFF, but I know that there isn't just a total lack of non-cishet white male autistic characters out there.
Hilarious indeed; in this country the only autistic SFF novel translated into my own lanquage is Rivers Solomon's The Unkindness of Ghosts. 100 percent of the authors and main characters are not white cishet men.
Why is Enga been left out of the data? How would Dr. Hoffmann categorize Yeti in Solomon' The Deep?